There’s a bit of an odd feeling out process that happens for me, in the first 15 to 30 minutes of playing a new game. Call it a trial period, call it a vetting procedure—whatever you call it, those first few minutes are by far the most important period in determining whether I ultimately end up sinking hour after hour into a new PC title. It’s a question of whether I find myself gelling with a game’s controls, interface and flow of play during a relatively short window of attention, or whether one of those aspects is inherently grating or flawed.
And to be honest, there was a point around 15 minutes into Rogue Legacy 2 (newly released after two years of Early Access) that I almost exited the game and went trawling through the Steam refund policy. It was the controls, just then, that had me scratching my head, and the inherent limitations of the game’s first available class, the Knight. “I can only attack directly in front of me?” I was asking myself incredulously. “How am I supposed to deal with such a limited bag of tools?”
It should probably not surprise one to learn that 40+ hours of play later, I clearly needn’t have worried. Rogue Legacy 2 is certainly complex enough to keep the mind and fingers clicking away, with the sort of addictive feedback loop of progression that can easily keep the player grinding out “just one more run” until 2 a.m. on a weekday evening. It may not be able to boast the emotionally satisfying narrative and relationship building of a genre-defining game such as Hades, but it does enough to keep driving the player forward, while embodying so many of the traits that have made me a rogue-like fan in recent years. Very little it does is unique or novel, but it doesn’t really have to be. This is a sequel, after all, to a game I never played but constantly heard referenced in the last decade, and it plays with the comfortably familiar warmth of a genre that I already know quite well. Within an hour of playing Rogue Legacy 2, it began to feel like I’d been playing it for years.
That’s for better, and for worse. There aren’t really any experiences here that will become crystalized in my gaming memory, like finally defeating the seed of evil at the heart of Darkest Dungeon, or winning the grudging respect of my Underworld-ruling father in Hades. The gameplay does expand generously in complexity from the frustrating place where I started, eventually allowing an enjoyably fast-paced freedom of movement, but it never comes anywhere close to the pure, random chaos and intricacy of the interplay between hundreds of different items and power ups in a title like The Binding of Isaac. The ceiling of aspiration here just isn’t that high. If anything, Rogue Legacy 2 is more an embodiment of the rogue-lite as a concept, and a champion of the more welcoming elements that “lite” implies. It seems calculated as an experience to convert curious players to the genre for a decade to come, just as its predecessor did.
Part of that friendliness stems from the all-important aspect of how Rogue Legacy 2 approaches a player’s repeated deaths, which is always an integral element of any rogue-like. Quickly, one realizes that there’s no punishment to be found in failure here—death is even more accepted and smoothed down in terms of consequence than in most rogue-lites, with no statistical punishment or regression. A player is simply dumped back in their starting town with whatever they earned on a given run, and encouraged to spend their hard-won gold on the next slew of incremental upgrades. The runs are short, especially in the early going, and they pass fast enough that they become almost rhythmic. If one plays for long enough in one session in particular, you begin to develop a feel not just for the gameplay but for the shape of your own momentum toward the next major hurdle, which is usually a boss encounter. You can feel either a confluence building, a sense of momentum you’re almost certain will carry you past the latest obstacle and into uncharted territory … or you know pretty quickly that the purpose of the run is to farm gold, or test out a new playstyle or set of spells/abilities, or to develop a better understanding the attack patterns of a certain boss. There’s even a few occasional pick-ups that incentivize not trying to beat the latest upcoming hurdle, and instead sacrifice oneself for a bonus to your overall gold collection—a backdoor that allows the player to generate a greater degree of profit from runs that weren’t going particularly well.
So too does the game incorporate elements that almost begin to break the construct of the rogue-like altogether, in the name of helping the player out. The Architect is one such tool, as he confers the ability to lock the entire map, removing the procedurally generated elements for a few runs at a time in order to give the player the advantage of a familiar map. This naturally costs gold, but I personally can’t imagine taking advantage of the tool even if it was free—to lose the randomness of procedurally generated stages would feel uncomfortably like cheating in the subconscious of this rogue-like fan. Never knowing exactly what one will face is an invaluable part of the experience to me.
I do derive a lot of satisfaction from one of the player classes being “chef,” and the special ability of that class being “make a pot of soup.”
This is simply a kinder, gentler form of the rogue-lite—less rewarding to some, perhaps, but undeniably more broadly accessible. I recall, for instance, almost making it to the very end of the original Super Meat Boy before finally tapping out, coming to a realization that the sheer amount of effort and attempts it would likely demand to come up with a perfect run in the final stages were more effort than I wanted to commit to the goal—the improbability of each run being the “perfect one” was an insurmountable hurdle that I couldn’t mentally commit myself to vaulting. Suffice to say, the same feeling doesn’t exist in Rogue Legacy 2 as I close in on the final boss. Will it be a tough battle? Undoubtedly, but the trepidation of “how long am I going to have to plug away at this” is nullified by the steady statistical progression that Rogue Legacy 2 always ultimately affords, which lends the player a quiet certainty that they’ll definitely reach the end goal with a little judicious application of skill and effort. Essentially, the boss will only be tough until he isn’t, because the player has grown so strong.
Perhaps that will be my jumping off point—a natural spot to lay the controller down and move on to the next thing. But of course, one can also then move on to New Game Plus to keep the challenge coming, layering on the next inevitable increase in difficulty, our human need for an ascending challenge fully intact.
In the end, I find myself appreciating, as I so often do with this genre, the way Rogue Legacy 2 and similar rogue-likes remind us not to cling too tightly to the here and now. The desperate defense of what we already have is a very universal human reaction—we instinctively fight and claw to preserve the current status quo because we fear the supposed setback of having to “start from the beginning” once again. And yet, after death in a game like Rogue Legacy 2 or Hades, one almost invariably finds that the combination of upgrades and player improvement in the next run makes your gameplay far more effective than in the run you were trying so very hard to preserve. As it turns out, there was never a need to drag things out in the first place. Rogue Legacy 2 asks only that you keep on trying, and trusts that the rest will (sooner rather than later) fall into place.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for film and drink writing.